Refugees in Leiden learn to live from day to day: ‘A bomb could be dropped on you at any moment’
Last week was World Refugee Day. Mare spoke to three refugees who work or study at Leiden University. Two are still waiting for a residence permit. ‘For a month, I did nothing but run away from the police.’
Lisa Boshuizen
Tuesday 25 June 2024
Ahmad Rifai fled from Aleppo in 2012. Photo Marc de Haan


Ahmad Rifai (26) fled Aleppo in 2012, works as an assistant at the University Library and will soon start a PhD in Middle Eastern studies. ‘A bomb could be dropped on you at any moment.’

‘Life in Syria became more and more difficult. ‘A bomb could be dropped on you at any moment. I can recall the sound of the air raids very clearly: it was absolutely terrifying. It’s somewhat comparable to a techno party. It’s so loud that you feel your heart pushing against your rib cage, as if it’s trying to escape.’ Ahmad Rifai and his mother were among the first group of refugees to leave Syria. ‘I feel privileged that we were able to leave so early. My sisters were already living near Dubai. We could simply get on a plane.’
At age 17, Rifai fled to Europe alone to seek asylum. ‘I couldn’t stay in Dubai. It’s not easy to get a residence permit there and you need a very good job.’ Accompanied by one of his sisters, he left for Turkey, where his long and perilous journey began. ‘More and more stories were going around of people making the crossing. That encouraged us to try it ourselves. But we also heard that many people didn’t make it across.
‘My sister was very brave and strong, she arranged everything. I told my mother I would travel to Greece on a tourist ship. The reality was different, of course. I would have liked to remember more of it and really should have had a GoPro with me to film everything. But at such a moment, you’re in survival mode and all you can think is: where do I sleep tonight?’


Once they arrived in Turkey, Rifai was separated from his sister on the Aksaray Square in Istanbul and taken away to get a life jacket, in case the boat sank. ‘Everything happened very quickly. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my sister. “There’s no time”, they said. “We have to go now!”’
After having stood in a small van with 38 people for 18 hours, he arrived at a remote beach in Izmir. The group was put in a flimsy rubber boat and they set off over the sea, into the pitch-dark night. ‘The smuggler pointed to a small light on the other side: “That’s Greece, that is where you have to go.”’
‘It was only upon arrival that I realised I was a refugee. You become aware of how incredibly fragile life is and you can't believe you survived.’ However, this euphoria was short-lived, because soon, the Greek coast guard appeared. ‘I reached out my hand, wanting to show him that we were friendly and civilised people. Immediately, the officer started shouting: “Stay away from me!” I felt so much shame in that moment.’

‘You’re constantly running away or hiding from the police’

In Greece, Rifai tried to enter the airport, but because of a fake passport, he ended up in the Athens jail. ‘It was terrible and hopeless, you had no idea how long it was going to last. They didn’t tell us anything.’ After a collective hunger strike, he was released. ‘I don’t know if that was the reason, but I have no other explanation for it.’
Together with his fellow refugees, he decided to try to leave via the country’s borders. ‘No refugee wants to go to Eastern Europe. It’s only when you reach Vienna that you’re in the “real” Europe. You’re constantly running away or hiding from the police, but as a dark-skinned man in a small Hungarian village, you easily stand out as a refugee.’
‘The Macedonian border was not easy: tear gas was thrown and there were many fights with the police. We managed to cross and continued our journey to Serbia. There, we spent one night in a former butchery that had been converted into a hostel – a lot more profitable due to the influx of refugees. From your bed, you saw the metal hooks that were used to hang slaughtered animal carcasses in the past. It was horrible. I’ve never felt such a bitter cold, not even after nine years in the Netherlands.


‘Somewhere along the edge of the border with Austria was a small village. It was a Sunday evening and the streets were completely deserted. An Arab man waved at us from his house. He told us where to get food and exchange money. The owner of that restaurant turned out to be from the same neighbourhood in Aleppo as me, it was sheer coincidence. He arranged for his friends to take us across the border.
‘For a month, I had been constantly on the run from the police. But when I arrived in the Netherlands and tried to report myself to a police officer, he said: “That’s not my job, you have to go somewhere else.”’ Like for many others, Rifai’s asylum procedure began in Ter Apel, after which he was repeatedly transferred from camp to camp over a short period of time. ‘They need you to be ready outside within 15 minutes. Once, I’ve had to quickly rush out of the shower.
‘I wanted to study, learn the language, be active. I couldn't just sit and wait. Eventually, I got to attend the university of applied sciences in Maastricht, but I didn’t feel at home there. I don’t respond to authority very well and am very critical and outspoken. That’s something I was taught back home. After e-mailing the dean of Maastricht University, they gave me the chance to study Cultural Studies. All because one man there dared to think differently and outside the protocols.’

Hadil Arnous (37) fled from Syria. Photo Marc de Haan


Hadil Arnous (37) fled Syria and had to leave her family and young son behind. In late 2022, she arrived in the Netherlands. She is currently taking psychology courses and waiting for a residence permit. ‘We were forced to sleep in a broken-down caravan.’
‘For months, we moved from place to place because our region was being bombed. When we returned to our own house, part of it was in ruins. Then came the food shortages. They had closed off the area and no food could be brought in. All you think about then is: how do I get bread?’
In 2015, Hadil Arnous left Damascus, Syria for Saudi Arabia. A few years later, she continued her journey towards the Netherlands. ‘I fled Syria in a difficult way. I can’t say too much about that, those are questions asked by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND). In the end, you have to try to find a solution for the rest of your life.
‘When I arrived in the Netherlands, we were taken to the asylum seekers' centre (azc) in Zoutkamp. We were forced to sleep in a broken-down caravan, it was extremely cold. I didn’t sleep a wink. I still get emotional when I think about it.’ Arnous stops talking and wipes the tears from her face. ‘Sometimes I don't understand why the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) treats refugees like that. How they could think: that caravan is broken, but let’s put them in there anyway.’
She was then moved from camp to camp, until she had her first interview with the IND and was transferred to her first ‘permanent’ camp in Flevoland. ‘I lost myself; I arrived here and couldn’t do anything.’

‘I do believe that things will get better in the future’

‘As a refugee, you learn to live from day to day. You’re not in control of anything. You don’t know when you can get a house or a residence permit, or when you’ll see your family again. Nothing about your future is clear.’
Her son is still in Syria, but she prefers not to talk about that. ‘You can ask me anything you want about the things that have already been resolved, but I can’t talk about things that remain unresolved. It’s very difficult for me. If my son comes here, I am the one who will have to take care of him. To do that, I have to be stronger and build something for him. I do believe that things will get better in the future.’
In the computer room of the azc in Flevoland, she started looking for solutions. She wanted to learn, build something and keep herself occupied. There, she found initiatives by Leiden University, among others, that make it possible for her to take academic courses. ‘The programme is about humanity and how, regardless of the situation you’re in, you have the right to study.’ She applied and was admitted, but due to the distance, she was unable to take the courses. ‘The COA refused to help me with transportation or transfer me. I couldn’t afford it myself.’ After six months, she finally managed to be transferred to Leiden and was able to take the psychology courses she was so passionate about after all. ‘In Leiden, I found myself again.’

Ömer Faruk Koç (30) fled Turkey. Photo Marc de Haan


Ömer Faruk Koç (30) fled Turkey after being arrested and detained as a political opponent of Erdogan. While awaiting his residence permit, he is taking migration studies courses. ‘We were silenced.’
‘My country became increasingly undemocratic. When Erdogan came to power, more and more oppression followed. Any opposing voices and the media were silenced’, says Ömer Faruk Koç. After having spent four months in jail, he decides to flee. ‘I was not an activist, but anyone suspected of being a political opponent was arrested.’
Faruk Koç lived together with his wife, who stayed behind in Istanbul. ‘I miss the city. I’m a true Instanbulite and know every street.’ But he saw no option but to flee. ‘I obtained my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at one of the best universities in Turkey. I needed to continue my academic life, but I no longer had the freedom to do so in Turkey.
‘A travel ban was imposed, preventing me from going to the United States to do a PhD. That was the original plan. It also meant that I had to flee through illegal channels.’ From Turkey, he made the crossing to Greece. It pains him to think back on it. ‘It’s impossible for me to talk about that. It took a lot out of me and it was horrible, it still triggers me.’
With fake documents, he managed to fly from Greece to the Netherlands. ‘I now feel very content in the Netherlands. People in Leiden are very welcoming and nice. But that’s not the case everywhere: at first, I stayed in azc’s in the bible belt. When I said hello to people there, they always ignored me.’

‘It’s important for the Muslim community to feel integrated and accepted here’

In the future, he hopes to be able to contribute to the integration of migrants in the Netherlands. ‘I think a big problem among Muslim immigrants is that they’re used to staying within their own community, which can push them towards radicalisation. People cling to the original sources, for example the Quran, to delve deeper into Islam because cultural support is lacking. If you don’t have prophets or parents to guide you, you can go down a problematic path. I’m a Muslim myself, but I’m not a typical migrant when it comes to my background and education. I speak English fluently and that makes a big difference.
'We need joint solutions from both the Dutch society and the newcomers. There is no blueprint we can follow, it’s a complicated situation. In my view, it’s important for the Muslim community to feel integrated and accepted here.
We know security agencies investigate Muslim groups much more than other migrants. When that news came out, Muslims thought: oh god, they’re coming for us. Now, there is no trust from either side, which we do need.
‘From an economic point of view, this country actually needs three times as many migrants as are coming in now, as there is a severe labour shortage at the moment. However, from a cultural perspective, it remains a difficult situation.’
Waiting for a residence permit can feel hopeless. You live in a constant state of uncertainty and don’t know when you’ll be moved somewhere else again. Faruk Koç will soon be transferred again to another azc and does not know whether he can stay near Leiden and continue taking his courses at university.
‘The COA doesn’t consider personal circumstances. But there are other people who do try to help us, for example by writing letters to the municipality. It’s reassuring to know those people are out there too.’


The asylum procedure for newcomers often takes a very long time and you are not allowed to work or study without status. The incLUsion programme is an initiative at Leiden University that gives this target group the opportunity to study anyway. Per semester, they get to take two bachelor’s courses, allowing them to get acquainted with the Dutch education system, improve their English and take the first step towards a new life. Other social activities are organised as well.